The Gift of the Word

The Magic of the Word

Western culture has a long, often misunderstood curiosity toward African religious objects.  Ethiopian magic scrolls serve as an example of this complicated regard.  The term "magic," to a Western audience, may be associated with elements of the occult; however, in Ethiopian culture, the concept of magic is understood differently.  The visual imagery and Christian prayers depicted in this scroll are intimately linked and are believed to enhance the object's "magical" healing and protective properties.

In this exhibit, among manuscripts that traverse cultures and religions, we are provided with a new context in which to consider the "magic" inherent in the sacred object.  For example, the content of the Ethiopian scroll shares many qualities with the sixteenth-century Italian book of hours as well as the Armenian prayer roll.  These objects incorporate highly individualized prayers and imagery that relate to the specific needs of their original owners.  Furthermore, because of their versatility and size, many of the works displayed were easily portable and intended to be kept close to their owners.  It is this personal relationship, between manuscript and patron, which endows each object with its religious significance.

In making comparisons, it becomes clear that the "magic" inherent in the scroll is similarly represented in each of these manuscripts.  It is not the "magic" of a "fetishized" object; rather, its "magic" is derived from the spiritual and demonstrates a powerful relationship between aesthetics, the written word, and the human body.

Karena Bennett and Alexandra Park, Art History Seminar, Portland State University

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